Stephen Kelman

In the words of the underdog I find my voice

Born in Luton, England. Based in St Albans, England, UK

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Stephen Kelman was born in Luton in 1976.

Pigeon English, his first novel, was published in 2011. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Guardian First Book Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize, and six other awards. It was chosen as the pilot title for the Books Unlocked programme, an initiative with the National Literacy Trust and the Booker Prize Foundation which provides UK prisoners with access to quality literature. Pigeon English is also a set text on the AQA English Literature GCSE syllabus.

Stephen’s second novel, Man on Fire, was published in 2015 to widespread critical acclaim.

Audio recordings


In this Guardian video, Stephen Kelman talks about his debut novel Pigeon English, a 'fish out of water story' that was nominated for the Man Booker prize.

In this video, Stephen talks to Nicola Barranger about his writing.


  • Alive and Kicking - Best-selling author Stephen Kelman explains what got him fired up to write about Bibhuti Bhushan Nayak, a man known by some as India's Bruce Lee (Sunday Herald, 2015)
  • Only Books with the Now Factor Set Kids Free - Classics are all very well, says the author Stephen Kelman, but to be inspired pupils need contemporary novels that reflect their often tough lives (The Sunday Times, 2015)
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Man on Fire, 2015, Bloomsbury

Pigeon English, 2011, Bloomsbury


Where Aunty Sonia lives looks the same as where I live. It didn’t even feel far away. There are still towers but they’re not as tall as mine, only like the never-normal flats. Aunty Sonia lives in a house. It’s in a big line of them, they all look the same except some of the doors are a different colour and some of the gardens are just pavement.

Some people put their cars on the garden. The car was right next to the window. It felt like the car was waiting to come in but nobody would let it in. I pretended like the car was a dog. He’d It had been sent out to the garden to ease himself, now he wanted to come back in but nobody was listening. Asweh, it was very funny. I even felt sorry for him.

At first I thought Aunty Sonia’s house was one big house but it’s actually two flats inside. Aunty Sonia’s flat is at the bottom, and there’s another flat up the stairs. Aunty Sonia’s TV is massive. It’s proper skinny and it hangs on the wall like a picture. Everything in her flat looks brand new. Aunty Sonia even has a tree inside a pot. It’s only tiny. A tree inside felt crazy, I didn’t like it. I was worried for when the tree got bigger and hit the roof. Then it would die.

Me: ‘What will happen when it grows up?’

Aunty Sonia: ‘It won’t grow up, it stays like that all the time. It’s a special kind of tree that never grows.’

It’s like a baby who dies when it’s still a baby. It’s very mean to make a tree like that. If I was the tree I’d roar all the time until somebody came and let me outside.

Aunty Sonia made kenkey and fish. I got so fed up I thought my belly would pop. I even had a cup of tea with two sugar. Aunty Sonia dropped the spoon on the floor. It made a mighty crash. Her face went hard.

Me: ‘Is it because of your fingers?’

Mamma: ‘Harrison.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘It’s okay. They’re not babies, they should know.’

Lydia: ‘I want to know. You’re always keeping secrets from us.’

Mamma: ‘Lydia.’

It’s true though, Mamma does keep secrets. I found her lottery tickets when I was looking in the secret drawer for chocolate. Mamma always says the lottery’s for foolish people and you might as well throw the pound down a well.

Aunty Sonia: ‘Where’s the harm? I don’t want to lie to them.’

Mamma let out a big breath. That means she’s given up trying. She just carried on washing up the plates proper fast like it was a race against the clock. I love it when Aunty Sonia wins. She tells the best stories. They’re even true.

Aunty Sonia burned her fingers on the stove. It’s the easiest way.

Aunty Sonia: ‘There’s nothing to it really. You just keep your fingers on the stove until all the skin has burned away.’      

Me and Lydia: ‘Did it hurt?’

Aunty Sonia: ‘It’s quite scary the first time. You can smell your skin cooking. You have to pull your fingers off before they get stuck for good. It’s the only time I cried.’

I felt sick when I thought about it. I loved the story so much already.

Aunty Sonia: ‘You hardly feel it really. It’s easier when you’re boozed. Like most things.’

Mamma: ‘Don’t tell them that.’

Lydia: ‘Do they feel funny?’

They look funny. Aunty Sonia’s fingers are all black at the end and shiny. It looks like it hurts. It looks like a zombie’s fingers.

Aunty Sonia: ‘Sometimes. I can’t feel the close-up of things anymore.’

Lydia: ‘Like what things?’

We tested Aunty Sonia’s fingers. We gave her a hell of different things to feel and she had to say if she could feel them or not. We tried the remote control from her TV. She couldn’t even change the volume at first.

Aunty Sonia: ‘The buttons are too small.’

She wasn’t even lying. Lydia made her feel the pattern on her top. It’s only little stars on the sleeve. Aunty Sonia made a concentrating face. It wasn’t working, you could tell.

Mamma: ‘That’s enough now. Leave her alone, she’s not an animal at the zoo.’

Lydia: ‘Adjei, I don’t know how you could do it. I could never do it.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘You do what you have to.’

Mamma: ‘You didn’t have to do that.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘I thought I did at the time. This is where your Mamma and me will never agree.’

Mamma: ‘It’s not the only thing.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘But you still love me, don’t you.’

Aunty Sonia burned her fingers to get the fingerprints off. Now she has no fingerprints at all. It’s so if the police catch her they can’t send her away. Your fingerprints tell them who you are. If you have no fingerprints, you can’t be anybody. Then they don’t know where you belong so they can’t send you back. Then they have to let you stay.

Aunty Sonia: ‘I did it the easy way. Some people do it with a lighter or a razor. It takes donkey hours that way. Just get it over and done with, that’s what I did.’

Every time her fingerprints grow back she has to burn them off again. It feels very hutious. Aunty Sonia says she’ll stop burning them when she finds the perfect place. When she can stay in that place forever and there’s nobody to ruin it or send her away, then she’ll let her fingerprints grow back for good.

Me: ‘It could be here.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘It could be. We’ll see.’

Me: ‘I hope it is, then we can come round to your house for Christmas. If I get an Xbox we can play it on the big TV, I bet it will look dope-fine.’

Aunty Sonia hasn’t even done anything bad. She’s never killed anybody or stolen anything. She just likes to go to different places. She likes to see the different things there. Some of the countries won’t let you in if you’re black. You have to sneak in. When you’re in you just act like everybody else. Aunty Sonia only does the same things as them. She goes to work and shopping. She eats her dinner and goes to the park. In New York it’s called Central Park. It’s big enough to fit a hundred children’s parks inside and it even has ice skating.

Me: ‘If you fall over on the ice you have to fold your fingers in so they they don’t get sliced off. My friend Poppy told me.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘Does Harrison have a girlfriend?’

Me: ‘No! And it’s the same with firemen, when they can’t see because of the smoke they have to feel around instead. They always feel with the outside of their hands, if you feel with the insides and you find a wire your fingers automatically grab on it and that’s how you get electrocuted.’

Aunty Sonia: ‘Is that right?’

Me: ‘Absolutely!’

Asweh, I’d love to go ice skating. I’d even burn off my fingerprints to get there. I’d do it on the stove, it’s quicker. It’s not really cheating, I’d still pay for my skates like everybody else. Aunty Sonia bought me a proper football made from skin. Lydia got a Tinchy Stryder CD. Aunty Sonia always knows what you want the most, she can read your mind.

We had to go when Julius came back. He had his baseball bat but no ball so we couldn’t play a game. Julius calls his bat The Persuader. He always brings it home from work with him. He pats it and talks to it proper gentle like it’s a good dog. You can pretend like all the scratches in it are from where it got in a fight with another dog.

Julius: ‘He earned his keep today. Give him his bath, eh?’

Aunty Sonia took the bat to the kitchen to wash it. She had to pretend like it was a dog as well. You only can’t ask why because too many questions give Julius a headache. You just have to let him drink his kill-me-quick in peace.

Julius: ‘Harri, want some?’

Me: ‘No thanks!’

Julius: ‘The only friends a man needs, his bat and a drink. One to get you what you want, the other to forget how you got it. You’ll see what I mean one day. Just stay good for as long as you can, eh? Just stay the way you are.’

Me: ‘I will!’

On the tube coming home I saw a lady with a moustache. At first I thought it was just dirt but when I looked again it was definitely hair. It wasn’t thick like Mr Carroll’s but you still knew it was there. I wanted to laugh but I held it in.